When I meet the Blessed Madonna at her home, she has been having a spectacular morning. Her remix of Dua Lipa’s Levitating, featuring Madonna and Missy Elliott, dropped the previous night, sparking hysteria from fans of all three stars. At 7am, she was half asleep, “spilling her emotions out” to Kanye West’s producer Mike Dean, who worked on the song. By the time she was up and about, it was higher in the UK iTunes chart than Drake’s new single.
For the past few months, the American DJ, producer and label owner – real name Marea Stamper – has been secretly curating a Dua Lipa remix album, which will be released next Friday as Club Future Nostalgia, from a festival-worthy lineup of dance artists including Mark Ronson, Moodymann, Paul Woolford, Midland, Jayda G and Masters at Work. She says “99.9% of lockdown” has been spent working on it in her pyjamas in a top-floor studio at her terraced house in east London, with a laptop, some monitor speakers and her dog. Occasionally, she would receive food and water deliveries from her husband. All in all, it has been “weird. You do this thing you feel so passionate about and you can’t tell anyone.”
Sitting at her kitchen table in grey sweatpants, a black T-shirt and her trademark NHS-style glasses, Stamper – who previously went by the name the Black Madonna – says she would usually spend the summer playing festivals around the world. However, she has not performed since March; a tour in Australia was cut short to allow her to dash back to London as the UK went into lockdown. With no sign of clubs or festivals returning, the Lipa remix album has become a homage to that dancefloor experience, something for which she has found no substitute during lockdown: “It’s never going to be the same thing – not until I go somewhere and it smells of Vicks VapoRub and armpit.”
Stamper, 42, is a devout dancefloor disciple who went to her first rave at 14. Back then, with her blue hair, “butch” attire and rucksack full of tapes for her Walkman (“I look back and I was already absolutely myself”), she was a prime target for bullies. She dropped out of high school in Kentucky after six months. Ostracised and miserable, she threw herself into the midwest party scene, finding solace in the utopian vision of the rave. She sold mixtapes of DJ sets, became a breakdancer and worked for one of the main promoters in the region to organise huge illegal raves.
She rarely saw her family and ended up moving in with a boyfriend when she was 16. They ran out of money. “If you’ve been a homeless teenager, that doesn’t go away,” she says. “Dealing with the fears and knowing what’s possible, the violence, it stays with you.” She watched some friends die in a car crash; she saw unscrupulous promoters put people in danger by using high-risk illegal venues; and hard drugs began to take over the scene and claim lives. Stamper broke away to study English at the University of Louisville, landing a show on college radio.
Within a couple of years, the rave scene drew her back. She became the resident DJ at the Chicago club Smartbar and started making her own music. In 2012, her track Exodus caught the attention of DJs including Derrick Carter and secured Stamper her first European booking, at Berlin’s famed Panorama Bar at Berghain. Within four years, she was named Mixmag’s DJ of the year. The success thrust her into the DJ lifestyle of exhausting global tours, but her Roman Catholic faith kept her feet on the ground: “It wasn’t something I could check out of because I felt homeless. As I got older, I needed to feel grounded to something.” She swerved the afterparties, got married and settled down in Leyton, lured by houses big enough to accommodate a studio, long-term rent and green space.
But she struggled with the scale of her success. She has had depression and anxiety her whole life; she has an “expensive team of doctors” and continues to take prescription medication. “On a day like today, when I know there’s going to be something [stressful], I don’t wait for the big Tony Soprano panic attack, I take my ‘Christian pills’ and prepare,” she says, laughing.
Stamper’s gender was not an issue when she began to DJ, but since she rose to fame she has been accused of using ghost producers to make her music, along with a range of other insults often aimed at women in dance music. “As a woman, when you cross a certain threshold of power that people think you should be ‘allowed’ to have, there’s a punishment,” she says. She highlights artwork for a record by the Ukrainian artist Vakula that depicted Stamper along with the female dance stars Nastia, Peggy Gou and Nina Kraviz as astronauts in a penis-shaped spaceship.
Since Levitating dropped, meanwhile, Stamper has endured online abuse from Lipa fans disgruntled by her remix. “It’s really interesting when you get a death threat from someone who’s got Taylor Swift as their avatar on Twitter,” Stamper says. “It’s like, StreamFolklore1969 [says]: ‘Go fucking kill yourself.’ Even when you know it’s not real, getting that death threat never feels nice.”
It is hardly the utopia she encountered as a teen raver – and the trolling, anxiety and unwanted attention all got too much. “I had to get into therapy because I was really losing it,” she says. “Even when you get to do what you want to do for a living, you still have to be a person.” Then, in July, she faced more online anger, as tension mounted over her then name, the Black Madonna.
As well as targeting police brutality, the Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd’s death scrutinised racist or racially insensitive elements of wider culture. The food brands Uncle Ben’s and Aunt Jemima announced they would stop using stereotyped images of black people in their logos (and, in the case of Aunt Jemima, alter the name of the brand); the Washington Redskins NFL team said they would change their name; and the country bands the Dixie Chicks and Lady Antebellum amended their names to remove slavery-era connotations. The white dance artist Joey Negro was interrogated, too, as was Stamper. Monty Luke, a Detroit-based producer, launched a petition arguing that she was appropriating the “black Madonna” icons of the Virgin Mary used by black Catholics and that, in 2020, “a white woman calling herself ‘black’ is highly problematic”.
Stamper duly made the change last month, saying in a statement that her original name was “a reflection of my family’s lifelong and profound Catholic devotion to a specific kind of European icon of the Virgin Mary which is dark in hue”, but acknowledging that it was “a point of controversy, confusion, pain and frustration”.
“There was no way that my name was not going to go through the prism of race,” she says now, still visibly unsettled. “In the end, I decided to let go of what is, in some ways, the very deepest part of who I was to show people who I am.” She describes the whole process as as “a very Catholic experience. I was thinking about Christ in the garden at Gethsemane … he knows he’s going to get it tomorrow: ‘All my friends are going to turn against me.’ It’s relatable because you know what’s coming, you know it’s going to suck, but that it’s the right thing to do. As much as it was hard for me being a Catholic, faith was also the thing that said it was OK to change.”
Changing her name reiterated her commitment to acting on her principles. In 2015, Stamper spearheaded the Daphne festival at Smartbar to place a spotlight on female-identifying and non-binary artists; in 2019, she pulled out of Intersect festival in Las Vegas after finding out it was backed by Amazon. She also helped the Ugandan DJ Rachael, her girlfriend and their son by hiring a legal team to get them permanent asylum in the US after they were forced to leave Uganda due to homophobic persecution.
The fight for LGBTQ+ rights is particularly pertinent to Stamper. When she was at college, she buckled under social pressure to settle down, tying the knot with a college sweetheart whom she calls her “starter husband”. She is now married to another man, but does not define as straight; she is what her friends once referred to as “middle gendered”.
“I always felt that I wasn’t a woman, but never had a term for it,” Stamper says, citing Virginia Woolf, who wrote of an “androgynous mind” in which “two powers preside, one male, one female”. Externally, though, her experience is that of a woman. “I know what it is like to be hated because you’re a woman, I know what it is like to be raped, I know what it is like to fear violence from men,” she says. “No matter how nebulous or complex or shifting the inside of my mind and my spirit is, I live in sisterhood with half of the planet.”
With Dua Lipa, Madonna and Missy Elliott on her Levitating remix, that sisterhood is palpable. It is a dream lineup, especially as she has always idolised Madonna. Missy Elliott has long been a Stamper family favourite, too. “Missy reached out and said: ‘You did a good job.’ I showed my mum the tweets and she cried,” says Stamper. “I think my mum even has a Missy Catholic votive candle, to give you a sense of what a big deal she is in our home.”
Ultimately though, something is missing: the love she whips up in a room when she is on the decks. “My butt is kind of a metronome,” she says. “I let people in the booth; I pass my bottle out to the audience.” Such scenes are unimaginable now. With social distancing preventing the return of clubbing, the rave lives on in her imagination – and the clandestine gatherings happening up and down the country. “I’ve got to say, there are a lot of illegal parties popping up right now and it’s totally irresponsible …” She pauses, with a wry smile on her face. “But I sorta love the kids.” Despite the knocks, her outlaw spirit lives on.
Club Future Nostalgia by Dua Lipa and the Blessed Madonna is released on 28 August on Warner Records